Sunday, September 13, 2009

Find the Other Ones

Right on this blog's masthead is:
To Promote Voluntary Service to African People
You might have noticed that I haven't said anything about that for a long time. I want to get back to that purpose today.

I'm not sure what's wrong with me, but for whatever reasons when I write online I feel a need to preface my points by noting how imperfect and inadequate I am. I see other people doing this sort of thing too. I suppose it has to do with pecking orders and at least getting a place even if it's a low rank. What I have in mind for this post get into some controversial issues. I want to preface this post by saying I'm a nice guy. Even positively awful people probably believe that of themselves, so my saying it is nearly useless. Still, all my life I've tried to do little harm to others. While I've not always been successful, doing no harm is very important to me.

I like social networking sites, the social Web seems on balance a positive development. Long time readers will know that my interest in trying to be of service to Africans was influenced by a book by Robert Rodale called Save Three Lives: A Plan for Famine Prevention. The book was published in 1991 and right after the galley proofs were approved Robert Rodale was killed in a traffic accident in Russia. One of the basic premises of Rodale's plan is famine prevention must be a localized effort. He thought that in general people knew what needed doing locally and the way to prevent famines was to empower regular people to do what needs doing. Rodale invited us to think small to have as a mission to make a difference in three lives, instead of the mission to save Africa or to save the whole world. Many small efforts combined would make a big difference.

That's the theory. I read the book soon after I got online in 1999 or there abouts. A rather late adopter of computers, I was very impressed by the Internet. I noted that Rodale's book was written before the World Wide Web, and was inspired by how the Web could implement more effectively a dispersed approach toward famine prevention. Of course every technology is complicated and for every intended purpose there seems a shadow of unforeseen negative consequences. Perhaps the ratio isn't so equal, at least I hope for the positive side to outweigh the negative. Nevertheless there's always a downside, and worse it's not always easy to tell in the short run what's good and what's bad.

I made contact with Magumba Nathan in Iganga, Uganda around this time. I learned from him about his life and the challenges in his community. There'a big gulf between our experiences, so I tried to learn more about Uganda in many ways. I was also interested in the concept of using the Internet to connect people and muster needed resources. I stumbled upon Christina Jordan, an American in Uganda who was well along the way on this Internet path. A few years latter through Christina's work I got introduced to an online social network called The Omidyar Network still exists, but the social network does not. The tool set of the old ONet lives on at Ned along with some of the participants at the old site. Christina has left Uganda and is pursuing new endeavors now.

Earlier this month Christina Jordan wrote a great blog post Do We Matter Online: Empowering Marginalized People on the Internet. Christina makes some very good points, perhaps the most important is:
empowering people means helping them believe that they matter, and that what they have to offer has value.
What's different about her essay is she talks from the perspective of regular people living in the Third World encountering the Internet. And Jordan expresses how important nurturing trust is.

I was excited to read the post because trust is not so simple because it's something built over time. Part of the reason for my not blogging much about Africa recently has to do with this. I haven't lost interest, it's just much of what I'm doing is with friends and isn't really something public. Of course Nathan's efforts with his community organization the BSLA are something that should be publicly known. I've got the gist of them, but I'm afraid because I'm so far away I'll get the description a bit wrong. And I prefer that his community tells their stories. Be that as it may, when I read Jordan's post I thought of a trend I'd noticed online of young men especially from Ghana chatting up foreign men on Gay social networking sites.

I kept quiet about this line of thinking, but then by happenstance Ethan Zuckerman wrote a post Gay sex scams – and community responses – in Ghana. Every time I read a post by Zuckerman I end up on a journey of clicking links, one leading to another. Zuckerman came to write his post from reading an article at Global Voices. I cannot recommend highly enough subscribing to their email update--at the top of the page is a subscribe button. Anyhow the post there is Africa: Preventing blackmail and extortion against gays . Both Zuckerman's and the Global Voices pieces are worth reading. Both deal with the issue of fraud, in other words the perspective is more or less from the perspective of the foreigner not the Ghana money boys.

When I've talked to friends about being of service to Africans online, the issue of frauds always come up, so it's an important topic. But I thought of the subject after reading Christina Jordan's piece which emphasizes trust the other way around. Ghana money boys on the Internet is a subset of online cyber sex. There's much of that's clearly wrong about it, but I'm not so sure it's all wrong. In any case talking sex online is something that's done a lot and a common beginning of exchange between people from different places. For good reasons most people are freaked out about talking about this sort of Web behavior. In regards to the online fraud and Web sites to combat it Zuckerman remarks:
It strikes me that this story can be read either as an extremely depressing narrative about how human beings treat one another over the Internet, or as a testament to the power of virtual communities.
Oh yeah, what people do is often quite depressing, we're a bundle of contradictions. Obviously the harm done online isn't what is done in person. It's easy to go on a rant about sex tourism and that line might provide some sympathy with the fraudsters. From both Zuckerman's and the Global Voices pieces I clicked on lota of links, I'm not sure how I ended up at, but I did. From a page on that site on tips for gay visitors to Ghana, I got a big chuckle reading:
Of course there are also legitimate Gay boys who sincerely look for a partner and who really do like white (older) men. Miracles happen.
For better or worse, hope springs eternal, and people are still looking for miracles. Over the years I've talked with male, female and trans people outside the USA online which start from the premise of looking for love. The Ghana boys have interested me in particular because there are so many involved.

Sometimes jumping out of the game results in a quick insult and end to it all. But sometimes the guys are quite happy to drop the gay pretense and cut to the chase about their efforts to get money. I'm sure there are some really awful guys involved in all of this, but most of these guys aren't awful. My concerns are usually the other way around, thinking about the terrible people they'll meet online. I have been impressed with the way the guys work in Internet cafes. Whatever you think about what they are doing, it's hard not to notice they're learning about computers and the Internet by doing it.

The wonderful William Kamkwamba has a new book out The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. I've been loving reading the reviews of the book because his story so inspires me. Following his blog he recently posted The Doers Club. He writes:
The Doers Club will work on inventions. The first is a steam engine that I want to make using a tin-foil solar oven. As they say, it's still on the drawing board.
Alright, I know I'm sometimes the fool. I also know I seem incapable of concision in my writing. In advance of Maker Faire Africa I'd tried to talk up the event and the notion of a maker culture to a bright young newly-wed in Ghana who wanted me to help him to do "one bad thing," meaning these Gay online scams. My presentation made no sense to him, and he's left me alone since. That's not the first time I've talked with young people in Africa about ways to use the Internet to create something good. These conversations don't always start out from a dating pose, not at all, but sometimes do.

Just recently I sent an email to a guy in the Gambia along these lines, I haven't heard back since. I procrastinated writing the email, thinking it a fool's errand. It probably was, but I wrote it anyway because something like William Kamkwamba's idea for a Doers Club really does excite me. There's a great deal of potential for Doers Clubs. They would have to have an on the ground component, but they also could have an online component. I think they might be a way for establishing more constructive engagement across boundaries.

The faker quality from both sides on online social networks around sex and dating has two sides to it. On one is the willingness to suspend disbelief, to believe miracles will happen. One the other side is the built-in skepticism by both parties. Perhaps the whole enterprise is irredeemable. "Find the other ones" was a retort Timothy Leary gave a reporter who asked what people are to do after they've "turned on, tunned in, and dropped out." One way or another people are using the Internet to find the others.

Writing all of this makes me think I should start a Doers Club on social networks I visit. Clearly, some social networks are more respectable than others. Going back to Christina Jordan's post and focus on marginalized people, I don't want to encourage people in the Third World to imagine that getting someone outside where they live to fall in love with them and send money or send a ticket to them to America, Germany or elsewhere. Still, lots of people are placing a bet something like that happening. Would a Doer's Club break the spell of possibility and therefore be avoided? Possibly, but there is also a store of goodwill, people want to love and be loved. We all know there are many kinds of loving.

I'm not sure I actually will start such a club. But I do believe that the "urge to merge" or Timothy Leary's "find the other ones" is profoundly human. There's much that's really bad going along with that, as well as the very best of what it means to be alive. Necessary attention to fraud shouldn't blind us to our goodness; in fact it's our goodness that needs extending.

~The photo is an image made of this Bazugu Bucks from Webpages As Graphs. Nothing really to do with this post, but an interesting graphic toy online.

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